Sep30

Where MP3s Have No Name

U2

Neil Cumins questions what U2’s recent iPod takeover means for online privacy…

When Songs of Innocence was automatically spliced into 500 million iTunes accounts earlier this month, U2’s latest studio album instantly became the most-owned record in history, courtesy of their new friends at Apple. Unfortunately for these two corporate behemoths, this has also become one of the most controversial events in modern music. Not to mention another candidate for the title of best ‘outrage marketing campaign of the year’.

Advocates of this unique collaboration argue that U2 were never a cool band or possessed with Rage Against The Machine’s ferociously anti-corporate ethos. Few musicians could honestly refuse the chance to distribute their music to half a billion people, quite apart from pocketing generous royalties – not just from this deal but through an inevitable uplift in back-catalogue sales. The customers get a free album, Apple get loads of headlines, Google and Microsoft get their noses put out of joint, and U2’s profile gets raised in a way their previous PR stunts never managed. If Johnny Rotten can sell butter, why can’t U2 sell out?

The counter argument is that Songs of Innocence was a poor choice of title for such a cynical act. Many people regard this as an unwarranted invasion of their privacy, and also the thin end of the wedge. If U2 can do this, what’s to stop 5 Seconds of Summer following suit? Will Apple customers wake up next Tuesday to find an HBO series has downloaded itself without their approval? Will they be compensated if that automatic download uses up their data allowance and they get charged for excess bandwidth? What if someone’s fledgling relationship is abruptly ended when their new beau discovers a U2 album lurking among a carefully-cultivated collection of thrash metal and screamo?

Following hot on the heels of high-profile cloud hacking scandals, this probably couldn’t have happened at a worse time for the digital media industry. People are rightly concerned that cloud-based data isn’t secure any more. Not only can hackers steal and share intimate personal images from supposedly secure cloud storage, but now the cloud providers themselves are accessing and manipulating the libraries of private individuals without invitation. Even worse, although anyone opposed to U2’s music/political leanings/use of sunglasses can delete the songs from their physical devices, they remain on the cloud courtesy of Apple’s ‘iTunes in the Cloud’ system. No wonder Apple has had to set up a support website, guiding people through the process of removing Songs of Innocence from iTunes libraries.

It’s understandable that Apple and U2 felt this was a public relations coup when the idea was first mooted, but the timing has rendered it something of a PR disaster. A golden rule for cloud storage must surely be that a private user’s data is never altered without their consent. Presented with a pop-up box saying “Would you like to download the new U2 album for free, courtesy of Apple and iTunes?”, consumers could have made an informed choice about whether to accept the offer of free music. By having that decision made on their behalf – and without their consent – another layer of trust has been shaved off the already strained relationship between cloud providers and their audiences.

Image: Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com

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